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Controversy Grows Over Bikes in Park

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Elysian Park, the current hot controversy, for a change, has nothing to do with the Dodgers, whose stadium has been a sore point with area residents for years. This time, the hassle is about bikes.

The 580-acre park of steep hills northwest of downtown Los Angeles is ground zero in a battle over a pilot program that could lead to the eventual introduction of mountain bikes throughout the city’s park system. Those thick-wheeled bikes are banned from going off-road into remote areas of city parks. Riders, however, can ride on a park’s paved roads.

Nearby residents, environmentalists and park users are in an uproar because they believe mountain bikes are inappropriate on urban park trails, especially in Elysian Park, where the remote country calm often gives no hint that skyscrapers are just on the other side of the hills.

Soil erosion and the safety of park users are the opponents’ main concerns.

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“Legs and wheels don’t mix,” said Sallie Neubauer, president of the Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park. “Mountain bikers seek the thrill of the dangerous and the extreme. And we’re talking about urban park space where people go walking with their dogs and baby carriages.

“If you allow mountain bikes in the city, you’ll push out other park users.”

While hoping for a compromise on limited introduction of mountain bikes, advocates say opponents such as Neubauer are misinformed and afraid of change.

“They are bike bigots,” said Peter Heumann, an official with Concerned Off-Road Bicyclists Assn., a local advocacy group. “Bicyclists are not any different than hikers, equestrians, runners or walkers. Mountain biking isn’t about speed. It’s a matter of getting from point A to point B in beautiful surroundings and you get exercise in the process.

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“We’re good citizens too.”

The furor comes at a time when the popularity of mountain bikes has never been greater. Since Gary Fisher built the first mountain bike--turning a 5-speed into a heavyweight “fat-tire” model able to handle rough terrain--in Northern California in 1974, the mountain bike craze has exploded. Since the 1980s, the number of mountain bikers has skyrocketed, almost matching, some say, the number of traditional bicyclists across the country.

Some of the bikes’ popularity seems to stem from cable TV programs that focus on the thrill-seeking component of riding. This image has put bike advocates on the defensive. Heumann and others emphasize that while some revel in the extreme, most riders are law-biding citizens who enjoy the outdoors.

The controversy also comes at a time in Southern California when a growing number of cities and counties and state and federal agencies allow some off-road mountain biking on dirt park trails that hikers and equestrians also use. The city of Los Angeles does not.

That, said Max Baum, the 77-year-old chairman of the mayor’s advisory commission on bicycles and a lifelong cyclist, is plain old discrimination.

“People are entitled to baseball, tennis and other things in the park,” Baum argued. “Why should we restrict mountain bikes?”

The Concerned Off-Road Bicyclists Assn. and other mountain bike advocates have lobbied for off-road access to recreational areas previously closed to them. The association was formed in 1987 to push for access to the Santa Monica Mountains, which was eventually granted several years later.

Although figures on the number of accidents involving mountain bikes are hard to come by, the problems associated with mountain bikes have been exaggerated in areas where they are now allowed, some officials said.

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“Very few [accidents] can be attributed to mountain bikers,” said Hayden Sohm, superintendent of the Malibu section of the California state parks system. “I’m not naive. There are still some problems out there, but we’ve made a 180-degree change in terms of perception. If managed properly, they can be a positive usage.”

The Los Angeles Recreation and Park Commission several years ago made an off-road mountain bike trail project one of its goals. But the effort sputtered along, slowed by a change in top management of the Recreation and Parks Department, which the citizens commission oversees.

In trying to pull together a pilot project, three community meetings were held last year--in West Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley and Griffith Park--to gauge public reaction. Opinion was decidedly against mountain bikes. Emotions flared at the sessions, which in total drew more than 500 people. Such groups as the Los Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club weighed in against the bicycles.

Department officials, after surveying city parks, focused on only two-- Elysian Park and Ernest E. Debs Regional Park near Montecito Heights--for a pilot program because of their size and hilly terrain. An assistant department general manager, George Stigile, said the effort initially would focus on Elysian Park.

Elysian Park has two dirt fire trails that could accommodate mountain bikes. One is in the park’s northwest section, where terrain can fall off by as much as 100 feet. The other is near a reservoir in the park’s eastern portion.

City officials admit that these trails are much shorter than what mountain bikers are used to, but that a working group of hikers, mountain bikers, equestrians and residents would walk the trails to evaluate them for possible use.

Such a working group was formed at a meeting last month at the park’s Grace E. Simons Lodge to set up guidelines for the pilot program.

That enraged Neubauer and other opponents who say they had no advance notice of the meeting.

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Opponents also accuse city officials of already deciding that off-road mountain biking will be allowed in Elysian Park, an assertion that Stigile denies.

“This is a process, just like the one on whether to allow unleashed dogs in specific areas of parks,” Stigile said, referring to the long hearing process that led to the creation of a dog run at the Silver Lake Recreation Center.

At the group’s first meeting Wednesday night in Highland Park, about 70 onlookers screamed “You’re a liar!” and “How can we trust you?” at Stigile and the working group’s mountain-bike representatives.

The group grappled with the dilemma of how to set guidelines for a pilot program when it appeared that a majority of the 20 members oppose mountain bikes in Elysian Park. They reached no conclusion on that.

Mountain biker Mark Peterson of Echo Park, a member of the working group, was downcast about the tenor of the session.

“I’ve never experienced any kind of hatred before,” he said. “I’m shocked to be hated this way.”

Heumann, also a member of the working group, was more philosophical, reminding a reporter that vocal opposition eventually melted away when mountain bikers were granted some access to the Santa Monica Mountains. “Some of our biggest enemies end up being our friends,” he said. “It’s a people issue. If we can communicate, we can work together.”

Neubauer retorted, “We’ll fight them every step of the way.”


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